How Ghost Tours Often Exploit African-American History
Tours of supposedly haunted places are a booming business. In the South, these tours often take visitors to homes where slaves died at the hands of their masters or cemeteries where slaves are supposedly buried.
As a new book points out, the tales that are told on these tours often have no relation to fact and exploit the very real suffering that took place in the Antebellum South.
University of Michigan professor and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tiya Miles joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about “ Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Tales From The Haunted South’
By Tiya Miles
Grasping at Ghosts: First Pursuits of the Paranormal
The Sorrel-Weed House Ghost Tour in Savannah was my initiation into the subculture-turned-megaculture of paranormal pursuits. Before stepping into that eerie home, I had steered clear of the supernatural beyond the realm of African American literature, where ghosts, indeed, abound. I hedged my bet that ghosts don’t exist in the real world by avoiding them just in case they did. Somewhere along the way of my African American midwestern upbringing, I had picked up an unequivocal message: don’t mess with the spirit world, and it won’t mess with you. My great-grandmother Anna Christian had a cryptic saying that I now interpret as crystallizing this notion. “Never cross water,” she used to command, warning her grandchildren enigmatically as she rocked, sightless, in her chair beside a window of my grandparents’ house. I did not know this great-grandmother, and I can’t say that I fully grasp precisely what she meant by this language. Nor, I suspect, did my mother or aunt, who shared Anna Christian’s words with me years later when I was a young girl. But as I embarked on this quest, my great-grandmother’s saying returned to my mind. I gathered, upon reflection, that Anna Christian meant this: there is a line between the spirit realm and our realm. It is fluid. Beware.
So I was wary when I realized that in order to pursue my burning questions about Molly, the enslaved young woman rendered ghostly at the Sorrel-Weed House, I would have to delve into the paranormal world of ghost hunting. My only sister was wary too. During the winter holiday break when I was set to return to the South to visit a series of haunted sites, my sister begged me not to go. We had been raised in a small Black Baptist church on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where we had been taught to avoid the signs and symbols of spiritual danger. Although we had both attained college educations and now moved in professional circles—she in banking and I in academia—we were still superstitious about these formative teachings and warnings. My sister pleaded with me to cancel my trip as we stood in the living room of my father and stepmother’s suburban house, and then, watching my face, she relented. “If you have to go,” she said, “and if you see anything, rebuke it in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m telling you, Tiya. Rebuke it.”
But my sister’s attempt to keep me safe and to keep all manner of ghosts at bay was fruitless in our present moment when the cultural phenomenon of ghosts and haunting has thickened like a fog. Televised ghost stories and visits to haunted sites have grown in frequency, density, and popularity in American culture since at least the early 2000s. Now what I have come to call “ghost fancy” is a cultural tsunami fed by new, mostly digital technology; reality and dramatic TV series about ghosts and other undead creatures (vampires, zombies, demons); local paranormal hobbyist groups; books; websites; social media spaces; and a plethora of ghost tours. Travel—touristic travel in particular—emerged as a central feature of the ghost hunting experience. Professional and amateur hunters alike journeyed to novel locations across the country, such as rural farmhouses and scenic lighthouses, insane asylums and military barracks, to track down spirits of the dead. The colorful regional contexts of these sites (local history, community customs, natural beauty, and architectural landmarks) formed intriguing backdrops for paranormal investigations. In 2010 the Huffington Post chronicled the “Seven Best Ghost and Paranormal Shows,” ranking the Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” as number 1. Hit television series such as Ghost Hunters on the Syfy Channel (2002–present) and Supernatural on the CW Network (2005–present) featured hunky (mostly white, male, working-class) ghost busting teams taking what could be viewed as the iconic American road trip. The guys fanned out around the country in buffed black American-made vehicles (in one case vintage, in another brand new), their trunks packed with high-tech equipment and holy water. Viewers could go along for the virtual ride and, increasingly, plan their own ghost-themed trips or, for the less diehard enthusiasts, add an element of mystery to any vacation by slotting in a prepackaged ghost tour. At the turn of the twenty-first century and into the next decades, Americans became obsessed with spirits of the dead and joined that fascination with an equally intense appetite for traveling “outside their usual environment.” The search for ghosts and a quest for novelty went hand in glove at a moment when tourism was steadily rising to become a multitrillion-dollar global industry.
Excerpted from the book TALES FROM THE HAUNTED SOUTH: DARK TOURISM AND MEMORIES OF SLAVERY FROM THE CIVIL WAR ERA by Tiya Miles. Copyright © 2015 by Tiya Miles. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
- Tiya Miles, historian and the Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan. Her books include “Tales from the Haunted South” and “The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story.”
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.